The following photographs were taken during a joint Gurkha and Afghan National Army patrol in the Nahr-e Saraj region of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The Gurkha’s, from C Company 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, left their main base at first light to visit a number of ‘check points’ that had been established in the area around the small village of Paind Kalay to provide security and reassurance for the afghan population who live there.
A Gurkha soldier helps a colleague across a water filled ditch during the patrol.
To minimise the possible risks from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) the troops choose many different routes, some easier than others, but crossing ditches and climbing walls are some of the many ways used to reduce the risk. With the kit and equipment the troops carry and the intense heat this is not an easy endeavour.
The patrol make their way from their main base on patrol.
Photographing patrols such as this brings with it specific problems to the photographer. Along with the usual patrol equipment that needs to be carried – Osprey body armour, helmet, weapon (Remember I am still a serving soldier, so I have to, although given the choice I would prefer not to carry a rifle- it hinders my taking pictures), ammunition, day-sack containing extra water and emergency rations – I also carried 2 Nikon DSLR cameras, one with an 85mm and the other with a 24mm.
Troops cross a recently harvested and water logged field.
Whilst this is heavy, it doesn’t really compare to the weight the other members of the patrol carry when you look at the extra ammunition, radios, water and extra electronic equipment they have but it does affect the way the patrol can be photographed and needs to be taken into account.
A Gurkha soldier ‘takes a knee’ during the patrol and speaks to other patrol members on his personal radio.
Also, due to the threat of IED’s, the photographer is not able to wander freely amongst the patrol looking for the better pictures and angles and you have to fit into the patrol’s ‘order of march’. This restricts the images that can be taken and where possible it is best to fit in between members of the patrol so you have them in front of and behind you so you have the option of turning and shooting in at least 2 directions.
The patrol crosses open ground as it leaves the village of Paind Kalay.
A lot of the patrolling is done in a single column and again this restricts getting some depth to some of the pictures but when the column follows natural bends in the environment then better shots can be had when the whole column can be seen. Obviously when the troops stop in a compound or other more secure location then the freedom to move amongst the patrol is restored and once again the hunt for other pictures can begin.
The patrol moves through the village.
By shooting on a wide lens you can try and incorporate the wider scene that the troops are patrolling in – to show them in situation and give some context to the pictures by showing the environment that they are operating in, but be careful – sometimes it is more about what you leave out of the picture rather than what you include. I was shooting on prime lenses and you don’t have the luxury to zoom in and out from where you are and this adds to the difficulty but it is the way I prefer to work – you might choose a different option.
Crossing a deep, water filled ditch using a small ladder.
Your own ‘comfort’ (I use the term in a broad sense) in these situations needs to take a back seat, because when it is uncomfortable or dangerous or there are obstacles to be crossed not only do you have to deal with that but you also have to photograph the troops as they deal with it. So when they work, you are working, when they rest, you are still working. This is the photographer’s lot. The reward? Hopefully, will be great pictures that tell the story.
The patrol climbs over a compound wall using the small ladders the patrol carry for this reason.
By thinking about your techniques, choice of lenses and cameras and the more important aspects, in my opinion, of photography – composition, light and subject – there are still good pictures to be had even from difficult and restrictive operating conditions such as these. Shoot with both eyes open and keep an awareness of what is going on around you and what the rest of the patrol is doing. As photographers we become ‘blinkered’ very easily and when we have our photography head on (…does it ever come off!?) it is easy to become almost removed from the patrol. This can be dangerous – as far as I know photographer’s are not yet immune to IED’s! So keep your head on the game and the risks are minimised, at least as much as they can be.
Moving across a recently harvested field, part of which still burns from the harvesting process.
Finally, you have to try and enjoy and make the most of the opportunity. You will be in the unique and privileged position of being able to photograph in one of the most demanding situations there is with some of the most professional soldiers there are – you have to try and do it justice, for you and for them.